Make this your year!

by Chris Atkinson, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the April 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 38, Number 1).

I guess I’m starting early this year. Maybe it’s because of what happened last summer, which was very believable and incredibly fantastic. Of course, the economy weighs heavily on our souls; it has shifted our focus and made us question things.

Perhaps I want to live simpler now. I want to return to things that have always made me happy — that I know are rewarding to the people involved. For many reasons, I am setting aside time again this summer to volunteer with my drum corps. I am looking forward to it more than I can describe.

If you have a few moments to share with your favorite corps this summer, maybe you might enjoy spending some time with them behind the scenes.

I marched for three years in drum and bugle corps — one year, 1991, in the Phantom Regiment, the previous year in the cadet corps, and my first year, 1989, in the Quad City Knights.

The human mind is remarkably kind in its faculties, in that the difficulties of growing up and the pain one might experience in those struggles are largely shed over the years in favor of the lovely, longing glow of nights spent on the field under the lights with one’s friends.

I remember vividly the cheering crowds. Fondly, I recall the volunteers who aided the corps and supported us on and off the field. They did anything and everything to make sure that the corps made its way down the road and back safely. Their smiles and selflessness were instructive for me.

In Phantom Regiment, they told us how important it was to say “thank you” and really mean it. I was grateful for the opportunity to march with the corps in the first place. I recognized how fragile our little group was, out on the road during the summer, depending on each other and our crew of volunteers. That feeling especially has never left me.

I’ve wanted to volunteer on tour with my corps ever since I left the field in ’91. My wife even managed to take some time to go out on tour with the corps in 2006 — just to see what it was like to tour with a drum corps — before I managed to get my act together and make time to do it. She kind of made it obvious that I needed to make time if I wanted to accomplish the goal of volunteering with the corps and “giving back.”

I was an avid follower of the corps’ activities during the summer. I was a booster club member and supported the alumni association. While I knew that the group valued the support, it made me all the more intent on volunteering at some point, because I could see that everything that I loved about corps was still there.

Fans may complain about how the instrumentation is different, or how rules changes threaten the activity. But seeing the members and watching them put their show together, and how volunteers help make that possible with food trucks, souvies, truck driving and the like . . . all those things are the same.

Volunteering to work with a corps is a complex thing, though, in preparation for it — it really was not something where I could just “up and leave” at a moment’s notice. If I wanted to take that kind of trip, I had to put work aside for awhile and use some leave time.

So last summer, after 17 years, I went out on tour with my drum corps, working in the food truck. I requested the time off from work (about 10 days on tour), got my luggage together and headed to meet the corps in Hutchinson, KS.

For those of you who marched, you will know about the packing process. I went to corps Web sites and got their lists for corps members of things to take on tour. I tried to pack just like I used to. I brought a sleeping bag and a pillow. It was like being 17 again.

I said goodbye to my mom and my sister after the show in Hutchinson — they were nice enough to join me for the show and drop me off for my tour fun — and off we went. But I was not riding a traditional tour bus like I remembered from my marching years. The corps had volunteer/staff buses with bunks, which were very comfortable. The corps made it clear that they take good care of their volunteers and staff, and they certainly made me feel very welcome.

The next day, I was awake bright and early, helping prepare three square meals and a snack in Ardmore, OK. The next day, Texas . . . a practice day and then the regional in San Antonio. Then Monroe, LA, Hattiesburg, MS, Alabama, Murfreesboro, TN, and finally to Georgia and the regional in Atlanta.

It was a lot of work and it is very hot in the South in the summertime, obviously. They were long days, but the corps was right there, all the time — there were many opportunities to see them and hear them practicing, not to mention watching the corps at their competitions. How amazing to watch their progress!

At some point — I think it was about day two for me — I got over the initial shock of not being behind a desk. Corps foodservice work is quite different than my regular job, but it became something that I actually welcomed doing. I wanted to make sure the members were fed well and on time.

In a larger sense, the corps’ commitment to its members becomes one’s commitment to them, whatever the job one is doing. For me, whether it was making cakes or cookies, or serving food out of the truck window, it became a pride thing.

When the time came for me to go back home, to my regular job, I didn’t want to leave the corps. It’s so orderly — so unlike regular life. Tasks, times, deadlines, all set for you — no competing priorities. Menus already written out well in advance; the feeling of nothing left to chance; the inevitability of success.

It’s hard to leave. People at my job asked about why I would consider that a vacation — I can’t imagine a better vacation!

As it turns out, I chose an excellent year to volunteer with the corps. What I remember most about the summer was the focus of the members. They were every bit the Phantom Regiment, even in July when I was volunteering.

Though the show was still in the process of coming together, it was obviously how talented the members were and how much they loved performing together. Perhaps more importantly, the members were all very mature and dedicated to the show and to respecting corps traditions.

I got the feeling that, in trying to make their summer about the corps and its legacy through the “Spartacus” program, they became even more their own group, the real embodiment of the corps’ identity. I believe their grasp of the concept at finals dramatically exceeded any suspicions anyone outside the corps might have had at the outset of the season.

For my part, I feel honored even having been around such a group, let alone having had the privilege to work with them. Being able to be in the stands in Bloomington when they won, having given them some of my time, is a feeling that I would recommend to you. You will feel proud of your corps no matter where they place, of course, because their trip will be yours as a volunteer.

When I came home, I found my job, if not my life, had perspective it lacked before. The road changes things. It reminds you that what was valuable and timeless still is.

Perhaps my looking forward to the summer is obvious, then. These are difficult times. Volunteering with the Regiment not only allowed me to help out my drum corps (and we alumni, volunteers, staff, boosters, this corps truly belongs to all of us), it also gave me perspective.

To borrow a word commonly associated with Regiment, there is defiance in the very act of fielding a drum corps. Everything in the world may be crumbling, but your corps rises from the dust in the summer time, travels the nation in your stead, representing your traditions and taking on this unique identity.

To outsiders that think us crazy, what is so crazy about love? That is what this is, after all. What else could keep us all coming back every year like this? But running a corps is tremendously difficult work. The task could be overwhelming. But taken with many volunteers, the task is easier and more fun. The larger lessons are simple: if we all work together, maybe we can get through this and be successful.

Don’t take more than you need. Give back. Focus on the simple things that make you happy. Remember the good times — there will be more good times. Drum corps makes that promise because it can.

I am writing this to   you because I am grateful, for drum and bugle corps, for the Phantom Regiment and for volunteers generally who make it possible.

If you have time to give or need a little perspective, see if your favorite corps needs help.

Start early and make this your year.